Category After Apollo?

Final Flax Committee Meeting

To that end, Low and Dale Myers met with Flax on November 12, in advance of the November 17-18 meeting of Flax’s committee. It was still Flax’s view that “the next manned space flight program should involve some techno­logical advance and that operational costs are not all that important,” since whatever system was chosen would not be flown frequently. Throughout the shuttle decision process, neither NASA nor the White House and its external advisors gave careful attention to how much it would cost to operate the shuttle; this would turn out to be the program’s Achilles heel. Flax also sug­gested “that it is Ed David’s view that the shuttle is dead unless David saves it and that the only way he can save it for us is by supporting something that is much less than the previously proposed shuttle; namely, the glider.”

Low by this point had developed a diagram showing a cost curve that compared the development and operating costs of various shuttle designs and the space glider; he was to use a version of that diagram and the trade-off between development and operational costs it depicted as a major selling tool in his frequent meetings during November and December. He drew the curve on Flax’s blackboard and made the point that NASA “now had some very interesting developments in the range of development costs between $4.5 billion and $6 billion, with operating costs around $10 million per flight.” Flax thought that “some” of his committee members might be willing to support a shuttle with those characteristics, and Low and Myers agreed that Myers would present, for the first time, “the small orbiter, together with the parallel-staged pressure-fed booster” at the November 17 Flax committee meeting. This would be the first time the TAOS configuration, the shuttle design ultimately selected, would be briefed to anyone outside of NASA. Low agreed to come to the second day of the committee’s meeting to make the point that “we can buy the kind of shuttle that we are now proposing within a reasonable total NASA budget, while still at the same time having a strong science and applications program.”28

Before the Flax committee meeting Low also interacted with committee members Fubini and Lewis Branscomb. He found Fubini “on the side of a small glider” on the grounds that “the United States should be satisfied with two or three flights per year. He sees no need for routine operations with men.” That perspective, thought Low, “strongly reflects Ed David’s view.” By contrast, Branscomb was “very much on the other side,” believing that “the United States needs routine operations, and to get these it needs a new recoverable space transportation system.” Branscomb didn’t care “whether or not men are on board, but. . . NASA has told a convincing story that men should be on board.” In connection with the Flax committee session, Low also met with DOD’s Johnny Foster, who had been charged with develop­ing a statement of the rationale behind DOD as well as NASA support of the shuttle, only to discover that “Foster had not yet made up his mind on the value of the shuttle” because it was not a response to “the hiatus in United States space activity during a time that the Soviet Union was bound to have major demonstrable advances in their space flights.” Low’s counter­argument was that “having the shuttle well under development and on the horizon. . . will be a far better position to be in than not having anything to show for the future.” He added “once the shuttle is available, we ought to be able to whip the pants off anybody that does not have this kind of a quick reaction, routine capability.” Given his own ambivalence, Foster had made no progress in developing the shuttle rationale statement that NASA and DOD a month earlier had agreed to prepare.29

As Low attended the second day of the Flax committee meeting on November 18, he drew his operations costs versus development costs curve on the blackboard to make the point that “over the past six months the shuttle has become a much more reasonable vehicle in terms of development costs,” since NASA was “now focusing on a shuttle that will cost between $5 and $6 billion to develop” and from $6-1/2 to $12 million to operate. Low argued that the “smaller, and much lower in development costs, glider should not be considered because it will be so terribly expensive to oper­ate.” The main questions, he suggested, were “whether the shuttle should be small or large and whether it should provide for routine operations or one or two flights per year.” Low thought that most committee members understood his argument, “but if a vote had been taken right then, they would have still voted for the small glider simply because they don’t believe in routine space flight operations.”30


Final Flax Committee Meeting

The development cost versus operating cost curve developed by George Low in fall 1971 as he attempted to gain White House support for the shuttle. What is designated as the “baseline” shuttle in this diagram is a two-stage shuttle with expendable hydrogen tanks mounted next to the shuttle orbiter’s fuselage. (Diagram courtesy of Dennis Jenkins)

This was the final meeting of the Flax committee, and the group never issued a formal report. Perhaps the committee’s most significant contribution was crystallizing the central issue in the shuttle debate. By this point, there was agreement that some new space transportation system was needed. The committee’s deliberations focused attention on the basic issue of whether that system would include a full capability vehicle capable of launching all U. S. payloads on a routine basis or a smaller vehicle, either a powered shuttle or a glider, to be flown occasionally to test various technologies while also keeping a U. S. program of human space flight alive. As the Flax committee met for the last time, that question remained very much undecided.

Unresolved Issues

There were two major issues with respect to the space shuttle left unre­solved as the January 5 statement was issued. One was what means would be used to boost the shuttle orbiter off the launch pad. The other was the character of the budgetary commitment to the shuttle program being made by the Nixon administration. The first of these was resolved by early March; the second persisted over the next few years.

Which Booster?

NASA after January 5 began a rapid examination of four alternatives for lifting the shuttle orbiter off the launch pad: parallel burn solid rocket motors, series burn solid rocket motors, parallel burn recov­erable pressure-fed boosters, or a single series burn pressure-fed booster. The two parallel burn configurations had their origin in the studies carried out by McDonnell Douglas and Grumman and resem­bled the thrust-assisted orbiter shuttle (TAOS) design suggested in Mathematica’s October memorandum.

The preference of NASA engineers as intensive booster studies began in January 1972 was one of the pressure-fed alternatives. The pressure-fed design was an invention of NASA’s engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center; the German members of the engineer­ing group who had been brought to the United States after World War II had career-long experience with liquid-fueled boosters. A division of labor between Houston, which would be in charge of developing the new shuttle orbiter, and Huntsville, which would be in charge of devel­oping the new pressure-fed boosters in addition to the shuttle main engine and external propellant tank, made institutional sense. But the booster studies soon showed that developing the new pressure-fed booster would be more difficult than it had appeared at first glance and thus carried the possibility of higher costs and more technical risk than had been anticipated. The OMB kept pressure on NASA to select the booster option that had the least chance of cost overruns. Since there was extensive Air Force experience with solid-fueled rockets, OMB leaned in that direction. OMB was concerned whether "NASA could overcome its instinctive dislike" of solid rocket motors. But Don Rice’s "contractor source" told OMB that NASA headquarters was "insisting on an honest comparison."3

By early March NASA headquarters had made its choice—to go with solid rocket motors fired at liftoff in parallel with the orbiter’s engines to boost the shuttle off the launch pad. The "principal reason for going to the solids was the low technical risk and the approximate one half billion to one billion [dollar] savings" in development costs.

Unresolved Issues

The final space shuttle configuration. (NASA photograph)

In addition, NASA had discovered that it might be possible to recover, refurbish, and reuse the casings of the solid rocket motors; this "tilted the scales because they made the operational costs reasonable." On March 13, Don Rice told OMB’s George Shultz and Cap Weinberger that "we recommend acceptance" of the NASA choice; that recom­mendation was accepted, and the basic space shuttle configuration that would become so familiar over thirty years of shuttle flights was given a green light for development.4

A Confused Path Forward

NASA’s move toward phased development of the space shuttle was a clear indication that the shuttle studies to that point had failed to identify a shuttle design that would both fit within the anticipated budget during the 1970s and that NASA’s engineers were confident could be successfully developed. This realization put the space agency in a rather difficult position. A year had been spent studying shuttle designs that turned out to be neither politically nor technically acceptable. Yet Jim Fletcher and George Low were convinced that a decision to go ahead with the shuttle had to be made by the end of 1971 if NASA were to hold together the engineering design and devel­opment teams, both within the agency and in its contractors, required to undertake the shuttle program. They found themselves, six months before that deadline, without a specific shuttle design to put forward for approval. Fletcher and Low at several points in summer 1971 gave serious consid­eration to pulling the plug on seeking approval for shuttle development, instead putting forward some alternative, less ambitious human space flight effort during the 1970s. Ultimately they rejected this fallback position and decided to press forward with the attempt to find a shuttle program that both made sense in terms of NASA’s future ambitions and was acceptable to the White House. Meanwhile, there were several related developments that would influence the eventual outcome of the shuttle decision process.

NASA Continues to Seek DOD Support

Although NASA’s Fletcher and Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard had agreed in October that NASA and DOD would work together to develop a restated rationale for the shuttle, by the start of December little progress had been made in this effort. One problem was that Johnny Foster, DOD’s director of defense research and engineering, who had been charged with preparing the rationale paper, remained ambivalent about a DOD commit­ment to the shuttle and to NASA’s approach to selling it. Talking with George Low at a December 1 dinner party, Foster had suggested that NASA was “doing the wrong things,” saying that “NASA should not let OMB impose an arbitrary cost limit on the shuttle. Dictating technical decisions through the budget process is just plain wrong.” He added “it is even worse if NASA lets OMB dictate the shuttle configuration.” Foster suggested that “NASA has decided to build a taxi to nowhere on faith. We should instead have a flight program that demonstrates the need” for the shuttle. Low’s retort was that “the main lack was in presenting an imaginative military space program taking advantage of the new capabilities that the shuttle would represent.”9 Foster’s advice was hardly useful to NASA, faced as it was with what seemed to be an unchangeable upper limit on the budget that the White House was willing to allocate for its activities. But NASA did not give up its attempt to get DOD support; rather, it took on itself the role of suggest­ing the “imaginative military space program” that Low had suggested was needed. That program came in the form of a memorandum for Fletcher to send to Packard. The memo was drafted by NASA’s Assistant Administrator for DOD and Interagency Affairs Jacob Smart, a retired four-star Air Force general. Smart’s draft noted that “in the next few weeks the President will make decisions relating to national objectives in space” that would be of “critical importance, because the nation’s military security, its political, eco­nomic and social well being in this and succeeding decades, are inextricably interwoven with what we do and what we fail to do in space.” He forecast dire consequences if the United States did not maintain a position of space leadership: “the self confidence of our people would diminish, our posture in the world community will be overshadowed, and our trade in world markets will be reduced,” resulting in “problems of great magnitude and complexity” which would “likely face this government, particularly DOD.” As noted in chapter 9, Smart in his draft detailed a number of ways in which “the space shuttle can deliver, with few exceptions, the total traffic of presently-planned military spacecraft to useful earth orbits.”10

Smart’s suggestions for potential national security uses of the space shut­tle were very similar to the ideas in the initial June 1969 DOD-NASA study of shuttle uses. They had been in the background of the discussions between the two agencies over shuttle design ever since, but apparently had had little influence on the assessment of the shuttle by the OMB civilian space staff. However, those potentialities were indeed known to and of interest to the top levels in the White House, including Richard Nixon. Ehrlichman in a 1983 interview suggested that “what the military could do with the larger bay in terms of the use of satellites” and the fact that “the space shuttle would have the capability of capturing satellites or recovering them” had “a strong influence on me” and “weighed into my attitude toward the larger shuttle. And I feel it is valid to say it also weighed into Nixon’s” attitude.11 What is not clear was how, and when, Nixon, Ehrlichman, and perhaps also Flanigan, Shultz, and Weinberger, were made aware of the national security potentials of the shuttle; because the issues involved were highly classified, any relevant documents are not contained in accessible archives. But as final decisions on shuttle size were reached at the end of December, the presi­dent’s interest in national security uses of shuttle capability were known to his other senior associates and very likely influenced their willingness to go forward with NASA’s full capability space shuttle.

It is not clear whether the Fletcher-Packard memorandum was ever sent; a final copy does not appear in NASA’s files. But the memo stands as an example of the arguments that NASA was using in its effort to insure DOD support of the shuttle program. Fletcher and Smart did meet with Foster and several of his associates on December 3. But no formal statement of DOD views on the shuttle sent to the president in December 1971 was located in research for this study, and there is no record of a meeting with the president to discuss this issue.12

The Shuttle and Human Space Flight

In its 135 flights between April 1981 and July 2011, the space shuttle was undoubtedly the public face of the U. S. space program, communicat­ing to the nation and the world an image of U. S. technological capability and American leadership. The shuttle orbiters carried 355 different people into orbit, including 306 men and 49 women, with many making multi­ple flights; two U. S. astronauts each flew on seven shuttle missions. The relatively nonstressful conditions of launching aboard the shuttle opened up the experience of space flight to scientists and engineers, and also to a few politicians, teachers, and industry representatives, not just to test pilots. Astronauts from 16 countries flew aboard the shuttle, thereby fulfilling Richard Nixon’s “pet idea” of flying non-U. S. people on a U. S. spacecraft. (In fact, while Nixon wanted only the symbolism connected with flying non – Americans on a NASA spacecraft, his interest opened the door to intimate international participation in the U. S. human space flight program, leading to the European Spacelab effort and the Canadian robotic arm on the shut­tle, the U. S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and eventually to the 15-part­ner International Space Station (ISS).) Of the shuttle’s 135 missions, 37 were dedicated to assembling and outfitting the ISS; maintaining the capability to launch space station elements had been a NASA “bottom line” in the final stages of the shuttle debate. Demonstrating the unique capabilities offered by the shuttle, other missions launched, repaired, and recovered satellites, most notably the Hubble Space Telescope, sent probes to the Sun, Venus, and Jupiter, launched other telescopes to observe the universe, and hosted on-orbit research. There were nine shuttle dockings with the Soviet/Russian space station Mir. Unfortunately, two missions ended in catastrophe; in each, seven crew members lost their lives.

The shuttle was and continues to be a source of considerable pride for U. S. citizens. Images of a shuttle launch are global symbols of American accom­plishment and technological leadership, and even after they have been retired from service the three remaining shuttle orbiters—Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour—are objects with high public appeal. In terms of its political impact and of offering unmatched capabilities for space operations, the space shuttle was a resounding success. The space shuttle met the objective of keeping Americans flying in space as a source of national prestige and pride; the capabilities offered by the shuttle made the United States the unques­tioned leader in human space flight.

Space Shuttle Missions

The report identified four “basic mission areas”:

1. Satellite placement, servicing, and recovery. In this mission area, a shuttle would deliver large satellites to low Earth orbit. Such satellites could be checked out in orbit before being deployed, and a future shuttle mission could rendezvous with a satellite “to replace non-operating or outdated” equipment or to return the satellite to Earth for refurbishment.

2. Launch of propulsive stages, propellants and payloads for high energy mis­sions. In this mission area, a shuttle would launch payloads destined for transfer from low Earth orbit to synchronous orbit or other destinations requiring additional propulsion. The shuttle would carry another new system, known as an “orbit-to-orbit shuttle” or “space tug,” to carry out such transfers.

3. Space station/space base logistical support. In this mission area, tied to NASA’s ambitious post-Apollo plans, the space shuttle would serve as a logistics system “capable of routinely transporting numbers of per­sonnel and significant amount of discretionary cargo to and from low earth orbit.” For example, “to sustain operation of a 50-man space base would require on the order of 70,000 pounds of cargo and passengers every three months.” The shuttle could also return to Earth “significant amounts of return cargo such as tapes, film, and processed material.”

4. Short-duration orbital missions. This was the most operationally challeng­ing type of shuttle mission. In purposely opaque language the report noted that the space shuttle could make possible “special purpose orbital missions of a unique nature,” lasting from just one orbit up to seven days, to support “programs of space systems operations, earth sensing or sky viewing.” A shuttle could also place in orbit “self-contained mis­sion modules which possessed their own crews to operate specific mission equipment.” Such modules could either operate from within the shuttle’s payload bay or be left in orbit to be recovered and returned to Earth on a subsequent shuttle flight.

The report noted that “in times of crisis our national leadership requires accurate information for decisions. This information could be crucial to the survival of the United States. The possible locations of crises are worldwide: Southeast Asia, Korea, the Middle East, and Czechoslovakia are but cur­rent examples.” In 1969, the only way that national decision makers could get rapid photographic evidence of a situation in a far away crisis area was through an overflight by the U-2 or supersonic SR-71 spy planes, an action that was a violation of national sovereignty and subject to possible intercep­tion. The NRO was in 1969 operating a photo-intelligence surveillance sat­ellite called Corona and another, higher resolution satellite called Gambit, but those two systems recorded images on photographic film. That film was returned to Earth in a capsule dropped from orbit and recovered by a waiting aircraft, and it could take from several days to weeks for the final film product to reach the desks of decision makers.10 The DOD/NASA report suggested that a “mission-equipped” shuttle “could return accurate information on a crisis located anywhere in the world or an assessment of an attack to national leaders within the shortest time from launch.” To carry out such a mission, the report discussed “a single-pass [one orbit] request surveillance mission with return to Washington, DC.” That mission would require a cross-range capability of 1,400 nm. Such a space flight would not be a violation of sov­ereignty according to the practice recognized by the United States and the

Soviet Union since the early 1960s and formalized in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—that outer space was not subject to national sovereignty. This prac­tice had been interpreted to mean that flying over a particular nation while in outer space was not a violation of its sovereignty.

Another short duration mission possibility mentioned in the report was “the interception and inspection of objects in space.” The report noted that “future unknown satellites could operate for days or weeks, posing a threat ranging from intelligence gathering to delivery of a nuclear weapon,” and suggested that “a national ability to intercept, inspect, and determine the purpose of (as well as destroy, if necessary) unknown satellites is vital.”11

The DOD/NASA report projected a shuttle flight rate between 1975 and 1985 of 30 to 70 flights per year, based on “only those flights required for existing, approved, or high priority planned missions.” Expanding the “mission model” to include flights related to post-Apollo lunar exploration by NASA and other prospective DOD missions could increase the flight rate to 140 missions per year. At such flight rates, the cost of launching a payload to low Earth orbit, the report suggested, could be reduced from approximately $800 per pound to $50-$100 per pound; a similar reduction from $10,000 per pound to less than $500 per pound for payloads going to synchronous orbit was forecast. The report predicted additional cost savings from “major improvements in payload environment, methods of operations, and through return of payload from orbit,” and noted that “the full poten­tial” of a space shuttle “can only be realized if it is indeed a means of low cost transportation.”12

The report concluded that shuttle development “does not require a break­through in technology.” Costs of developing the shuttle designs then being considered were estimated to be between $4 and $6 billion. All designs examined had a 15 x 60 foot payload bay and would be able to carry 50,000 pounds to a 100 nm polar orbit (an orbit that would go from south to north, crossing over or near the Earth’s poles) after being launched from California. The vehicle would also be able to return a heavy payload from orbit, allow­ing satellite refurbishment and re-launch. The 15-foot width of the payload bay was required for “space station logistics support, propulsive stages, and satellites such as. . . surveillance systems.” The 60-foot length of the pay­load bay was required for “ocean surveillance spacecraft, stage-plus-payloads for synchronous missions, or two medium altitude surveillance satellites.” A cross-range capability of 1,500 nm was “the selected design value.”13

The report concluded by noting that “a fully reusable system has inherent advantages compared to a partially reusable system.” It added that “unless the stage and one-half partially reusable system [an option that at that time was being considered during the NASA Phase A studies and would in 1971 be adopted as the final shuttle design] is found to have substantial advan­tage in cost, schedule, or reduction in technical risk, a fully reusable system should be selected.”14

The extremely optimistic—indeed, unrealistic—tone of the DOD/NASA report, with its projection of a high space flight rate and the ability to launch on demand and its conclusion that there were no technological barriers to designing a space shuttle that would launch anticipated missions at a major reduction in cost while at the same time offering unique capabilities for new missions, set the baseline for the policy-level discussions of the space shuttle over the next several years. In a period of a few months in early 1969, the shuttle concept had expanded from being only a supply vehicle for a space sta­tion, to be launched 8 to 12 times a year, to a system that could launch up to 140 times a year, carrying out all government space missions. This very high launch rate (almost three launches per week!) was well beyond the bounds of realism, but suggests the aspirations of some of those involved in the DOD/ NASA study. The projected low cost of shuttle operations remained a major selling point, and the validity of the report’s call for a large payload bay and substantial cross-range were key issues in the debate over shuttle approval. Thus the June 1969 DOD/NASA report marked a key milestone in the space shuttle decision process.

Debating a Shuttle Decision

^With the September 30, 1971, submission of NASA’s Fiscal Year (FY) 1973 budget request to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the process that would most likely result in an up-or-down decision on approving space shuttle development or pursuing some less ambitious post-Apollo human space flight program entered its final stage. Even though Cap Weinberger had suggested in his August 12 memo that the NASA budget should be set at a level that would allow the beginning of space shuttle development and President Nixon had indicated “I agree with Cap,” that news had not been communicated to lower levels in the White House or to NASA. The result was a fragmented and contentious debate over shuttle approval.

Over the next three months, as NASA’s Jim Fletcher and George Low sought support in the national security community and the aerospace indus­try for NASA’s position that a “full capability” shuttle orbiter able to launch all U. S. payloads should be approved for development, OMB’s Rice and his staff were joined by science adviser Ed David, his Office of Science and Technology (OST) staff, and David’s advisory Flax committee in opposition to an ambitious space shuttle program. Others in the Executive Office of the President, such as Tom Whitehead, now at the Office of Telecommunications Policy, Bill Anders at the Space Council, and Peter Flanigan and his assistant Jonathan Rose in the White House, tried to mediate the conflict between NASA and OMB/OST and to move the process toward a productive out­come.

The debate over what should be the next step in human space flight, although conducted in the context of decisions with respect to the president’s FY1973 budget proposal, was not intimately tied to NASA’s budget level for that year, since NASA had requested only $228 million for the space shuttle in its budget submission. Rather, it was fundamentally about what kind of space program the United States would carry out in the coming decade and beyond. Approving a new start on the full capability shuttle would imply that once the shuttle was flying the United States would use it as the basis for an active national space effort, even if it were far less ambitious than what the Space Task Group had proposed in 1969. Choosing a more modest shuttle

option or an alternative to the shuttle such as an unpowered glider would signify the Nixon administration’s intent to reduce even more NASA’s post – Apollo ambitions with respect to the future of human space flight.

Last Minute Objections Raised

Not surprisingly, given the deep skepticism of OMB and OST with respect to the wisdom of going ahead with a large space shuttle, last ditch opposition to approving NASA’s shuttle plans continued. David wrote Shultz on December 30, saying that he was “disturbed by the prospect that a decision will be made” to approve the full-sized shuttle. It was David’s view that “the large space program implicit in the large shuttle decision is not consistent with the best interests of this nation.” David was joined in opposition by Rice and his OMB space staff, who remained dubious regarding the economic justification for a large shuttle, saying that “all of the decisions regarding the Shuttle should be made in the full awareness that the Shuttle is not a cost – effective system—whether at 15′ x 60′ or any other size.” Thus, what should be approved was “the smallest Shuttle which can offer improvements over our current methods of operation. Any size Shuttle will provide manned space flight and national prestige.”6

Weinberger offered Rice one last chance to make the case against a large shuttle. On December 30, Weinberger called Fletcher, asking for another look at a shuttle with a 14 x 45 foot payload bay but limited to lifting only 30,000 pounds to orbit. This suggestion came from Rice. Low reported that “Fletcher came close to telling Weinberger to go to hell.” Fletcher then called Shultz “and had another lengthy conversation with him.” Shultz was also “unwilling to make a decision and recommended that we should not yet go to see the President but take one more look at the request made by Rice and presumably David.” The next day, Friday, December 31, Fletcher and Low “held a telephone conversation with David and Rice without really getting any new information. Rice did all of the talking and David was very quiet.” Low added

Rice said that he would still like to see us go ahead with the 12 x 40′ 30,000 lb. Shuttle, but that they’re willing to give in on size. . . He wanted us to crank up studies over the weekend to answer all of his questions. I pointed out that our people had already scattered for New Year’s. . . I called Rice back later and asked him for a piece of paper to spell out in writing, once and for all, all that he wanted us to do. He indicated that the piece of paper would be a good idea but that he would not commit that it would, once and for all, ask all his questions.7

OMB sent eight questions to NASA, including “if future budgets for NASA were constrained to $3.2-$3.3 B, would you still want to do the large Shuttle?” and “why should a relatively few space station modules for the mid-1980’s determine the size and weight capabilities of the Shuttle?” Other questions dealt with more specific technical issues. By the following Monday, NASA had developed answers to most of OMB’s questions. With respect to the first query, NASA said “the answer is yes”; with respect to the second, NASA provided a detailed list of the payloads other than space station mod­ules that required a weight-lifting capability of over 30,000 pounds.8

Reflecting on the need to respond to OMB’s questions, a frustrated George Low complained that “there is nobody [likely referring to Shultz and Weinberger] in the White House willing to make any decisions. Everybody feels that the issue of Shuttle size is too small [not important enough] an issue to take to the President. . . but they’re also unwilling to let the Administrator of NASA to make that decision.” The result was that “they let their various staffs continue to. . . ask nickel and dime sized questions without ever calling a halt to that procedure and say it’s about time we made up our mind and let’s proceed.” Looking back at the decision process several years later, Low added “the single most significant factor affecting the space shuttle decision was that there was no top-level leadership in the White House. President Nixon was unwilling to deal with his agency heads and dealt solely with his staff. This placed a great deal of decision-making responsibility with the OMB, and by definition the OMB is far more interested in short-range bud­getary problems than in the long-range future of the nation.” Low’s criticism was not completely fair; both David and Rice couched their opposition to the large shuttle in terms of its longer term impact on the U. S. space pro­gram, not just on shorter-term budget issues.9

In advance of the late afternoon meeting on January 3, 1972, at which a decision how to proceed with the shuttle had to be made, David and Rice continued their opposition to the choice of a large shuttle. By this point, they recognized that some sort of announcement of presidential approval of shuttle development was a fait accompli, but were still arguing for having President Nixon make that announcement only in principle, without decid­ing on a specific shuttle design. David on January 3 sent another memo­randum to Shultz, this time arguing that “it would be desirable to defer a decision on the configuration, while announcing the Administration’s intention of proceeding with development of a new, reusable space vehicle for man and other payloads that will use advanced technology.” David sug­gested a three-month delay in selecting a shuttle configuration; during that time, NASA studies would “complete detailed examination of the lower cost alternatives to the full Shuttle capability.” Rice supported David’s argu­ment, telling Shultz “Dr. David’s proposals. . . appear to make a great deal of sense,” and that “the Administration should carefully examine the alter­natives before committing itself to a very costly and potentially unpopular large new space program.” Rice noted that “after urging by OMB and OST, NASA has only in December started looking at possible smaller and less costly alternatives—compared to about two years of study for the bigger system.” With the deadline for printing the president’s budget message fast approaching, Rice suggested that the budget message should include only “a general announcement of a decision to proceed with development of a new system for lower cost delivery of man and other payloads into space.”10 Both Rice and David resisted calling that new system a “shuttle.”

David and Rice may have exceeded their appropriate staff roles in trying to change the minds of their political leaders by arguing in support of their strong conviction that approving the NASA shuttle was not in the coun­try’s interests. For example, Rice had sought outside help from the aero­space industry in developing OMB’s alternate shuttle design and used shuttle approval as a bargaining chip in attempting to get NASA to downsize its institutional base. He gave little weight in his opposition to issues such as aerospace unemployment and the political impact of shuttle approval on the 1972 presidential election. In the judgment of one close observer of the deci­sion process, Peter Flanigan’s assistant Jonathan Rose, this behavior went beyond acceptable bounds. Rose observed that

Ed David and Don Rice may well have been right that there existed a different cost curve than the one that NASA was able to find for a shuttle with a smaller bay and lighter payload. I am quite clear that only their pressure forced the shuttle modifications which produced the massive savings from the August shuttle [the two-stage design] to the December shuttle. They were however unable to prove their case when it came to another billion dollars in potential savings if we delayed for several months more. While NASA may not histori­cally have effectively studied the smaller shuttle, I became convinced that Jim Fletcher had in the time given to him done the best he could. In the last analy­sis, that is all one can ask of an honest agency head. He should not be brutal­ized on a continuing basis by the budget process or by the White House staff when such pressure appears to reach the point of diminishing return.

The essence of judgment is to know when to stop. I simply think that Don Rice failed us here. He viewed the political situation as well as the plight of the contractors very lightly. He was far more interested in pursuing the mar­ginal cost savings which his staff led him to believe were possible. This in turn finally led him to some highly shoddy tactics in ex parte lobbying.

I believe we reached the best possible result under the circumstances. In a non-election year I might have seen the equation differently and been willing to wait several extra months to see if Rice was right. But I believe you have to play the ball from where it lies, and this after all is 1972.11

It is arguable whether Rice and David “brutalized” NASA in opposing a full capability shuttle or whether they behaved responsibly in making sure the reasons for that opposition were fully understood by the political deci­sion makers. What is clear is that they did state their case with vehemence, that short-term considerations related to aerospace employment in advance of the 1972 presidential election played a crucial role in the final decision to approve the full capability shuttle, that Rice and David were on the losing side of the argument, and that, with the benefit of hindsight, they were fully justified in their opposition.

Phase B Study Results

The Phase B preliminary design studies of a two-stage, fully reusable shuttle being carried out by North American Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas continued until mid-1971. There were a wide variety of orbiter and booster designs considered and cost estimates also varied widely as industry engi­neers struggled to meet the requirements set out by NASA. There was one

Phase B Study Results

A 1971-vintage artist’s concept of a two-stage fully reusable space shuttle. (Illustration cour­tesy of Dennis Jenkins)

constant: the shuttle designs being considered involved developing two large and expensive vehicles. For example, one version of the North American Rockwell orbiter was 206 feet long and had a wing span of 107 feet, about the size of the four-engine Boeing 707 commercial airliner then in use. The booster was 269 feet long and had a wing span of 143.5 feet, about the size of the Boeing 747 jumbo airliner then just entering commercial service; it had 12 rocket engines to provide the initial power to lift itself and the orbiter off the ground to what was called a “staging velocity.” The vehicles would then separate and the booster’s two-person crew would fly it, using a dozen air-breathing jet engines, back to a runway landing. The orbiter, also oper­ated by a two-person crew, upon separation would fire its two engines of the same design as those used on the booster and accelerate to orbital velocity. One contractor’s estimate of the cost of a fleet of four boosters and five orbiters flying 445 missions through FY1989 was $9.6 billion.27

Where was Wernher von Braun?

Noticeable by his absence as NASA tried to garner support for the space shuttle was Wernher von Braun, perhaps NASA’s most charismatic spokes­person. Von Braun had moved to NASA headquarters early in 1970 to direct NASA’s planning efforts, and thus logically he should have been one of the senior NASA officials involved in the attempt to gain White House support for the shuttle. But Fletcher and Low had discovered that “von Braun is not a supporter of the Shuttle, and in fact may be an opponent.” According to Low, von Braun’s skepticism was based on his conclusion that “the Shuttle will cost much more than our current estimates of Mark I/Mark II, and that NASA cannot afford to proceed with the development. To use his words, if we were given a Shuttle for a Christmas present, we would certainly use it, but, according to him, we cannot afford the cost of development.”31

Von Braun had come to Washington with high hopes that, working together with the visionary Tom Paine, he might be able to convince the president and Congress to proceed toward a goal of eventual human missions to Mars, which had been his lifelong aspiration. President Nixon’s March 1970 space statement had dampened that hope, and von Braun quickly found that in his position as head of planning for NASA, he was expected to present options for the agency’s leaders to choose among, not advocate a particular course of action. When Paine announced in July 1970 that he was leaving NASA, von Braun was “just devastated.” His relationship with George Low during Low’s time as acting administrator was cordial but professional; “the one-on-one meetings with the administrator [Paine] ended and appointments with the acting administrator [Low] to discuss our programs became more difficult to set up as time went by.” When Fletcher became NASA administrator, “it tem­porarily improved the climate for von Braun.” Fletcher “admired” von Braun, and told him so. But given that Dale Myers and his team were leading shuttle studies, Fletcher “no more needed a ‘chief architect’ and planner than did George Low.” Von Braun was one of those arguing in mid-1971 that NASA should give up on advocating a two-stage, fully reusable shuttle. According to von Braun’s biographer, “what he could not dodge was his growing isolation at headquarters, a product of the marginalization of his planning office and his unpopular stance on space shuttle funding and design.” By May 1972, von Braun decided to leave NASA for a job in industry; at his farewell party, he told a close associate, “George Low had thanked him profusely, in the name of all NASA, for fighting for a ‘smaller and cheaper’ shuttle.” Low told von Braun: “We were not at all pleased by your warning words, but finally

accepted your advice__ If you had not raised the red flag at that time, I’m

certain the entire shuttle would be dead by now.” Von Braun described that conversation as his “happiest moment during my time at headquarters.”32 But in the heated debate over shuttle approval in the fall of 1971, Wernher von Braun was nowhere to be seen.